The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

N.Y. Times calls U.S. gun laws ‘national disgrace’ in first front-page editorial since 1920

Data suggest it will be hard to change people's minds or make a difference

Newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times have a wall between the news and editorial departments  — and front pages have, in modern times, traditionally belonged to the news section. But on Saturday morning, the Times is breaking with that tradition with the first front page editorial since 1920, calling for tighter gun control laws after the shootings in Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif., over the past eight days.

In a statement, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote that the decision was made "to deliver a strong and visible statement of frustration and anguish about our country’s inability to come to terms with the scourge of guns. Even in this digital age, the front page remains an incredibly strong and powerful way to surface issues that demand attention. And, what issue is more important than our nation’s failure to protect its citizens?"

In the editorial, the Times writes that regardless of the motivations of the killers in California, Colorado and so many other places, "the attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms."

It continues:

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

The editorial calls for the prohibition of certain types of weapons used for killing sprees, "like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition" — and not just future purchases, but all such weapons.

"It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens," the editorial concludes. "What better time than during a presidential election to show, at long last, that our nation has retained its sense of decency?"

The last time the Times put an editorial on the front page was to express opposition to Warren Harding's nomination as the Republican Party's presidential candidate. In recent weeks, the New York Daily News had been most colorfully rallying against what it views as excessively lax gun laws.

Here's Thursday's Daily News front page, the day after the shootings in San Bernardino, when the paper lamented politicians who express condolences to victims but oppose tighter gun control.

The Washington Post has also run several editorials and columns in recent days expressing outrage at the spate of shootings and the state of gun laws in America. On Thursday, The Post wrote:

Yes, the nation needs to pursue Islamist terrorists overseas more aggressively and combat radicalization at home. Yes, we need to offer better mental-health treatment. But we also need to make it more difficult for civilians to obtain weapons of war. Only one day before the San Bernardino shooting, members of Congress observed a moment of silence for the victims of the Colorado mass shooting. Unfortunately, that silence is the most they’ve been able to offer so far.

The question, though, is whether the messages — whether they appear on editorial pages or on front pages or in flashy tabloids — will make a difference. And for those hoping they will, disappointment seems likely.

Americans are split on the question of whether it's more important to control gun ownership or to protect the right to own guns. This wasn't always the case, according to the Pew Research Center. While 47 percent of Americans say it's more important to protect the right to own guns today, that is up from 29 percent at the turn of the century. What's more, mass shootings haven't tended to fundamentally change public opinion, according to Pew, although it will be interesting to see if the intersection of terrorism and gun violence in San Bernardino will alter that pattern.

Earlier this week, my colleagues Jim Tankersley and Scott Clement noted that for gun owners, opposition to gun control isn't just about preserving the right to bear arms. It represents, in their words, "a backlash against government intrusion in individual lives." In a large 2012 survey by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of Americans who strongly agreed with the statement that  "government controls too much of our daily lives" opposed stricter gun laws, something true of only 24 percent who strongly disagreed with that statement.

But even if the goals of these editorials were realized, it's not clear how much that would accomplish. A ban on assault-style weapons, or other gun control measures, could certainly prevent specific mass shootings across the United States. But the daily scourge of gun violence in America is a much more ingrained pattern — one that most likely reflects the simple volume of guns in this country. In total, about 30,000 Americans are shot to death each year, roughly two-thirds in suicides and one-third in homicides. Most of deaths are not at the hands of terrorists or mass shooters.

Many researchers say that to truly dent this pattern with gun policy, the U.S. would have to set off on a wide-scale effort to reduce the number of guns, just as Australia did after a massacre in 1996. That doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Where does that leave us? My colleague Chris Ingraham has repeatedly referenced this powerful analogy from the Economist in thinking about how America regards gun violence:

The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity. The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become — for those not directly affected by tragedy — ritualised and then blend into the background noise. That normalisation makes it ever less likely that America's political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness.
Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.

One other idea: Many readers this week seemed surprised by a story on a development, happening in plain sight, that is rather at odds with the overall tone of the gun discussion. Gun homicides, in fact, are actually way down in America.

As my colleague Max Ehrenfreund reported, there were seven homicides by firearms for every 100,000 Americans in 1993, according to a Pew analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 3.6 homicides by firearm for every 100,000 Americans.

Nobody knows quite why that happened, but theories involve more cops on the beat, more sophisticated use of technology by law enforcement, less excessive drinking, less lead poisoning, and a better economy.

While researchers are still investigating the question, it is intriguing — and somewhat reassuring — that one way to reduce gun violence in America is to reduce violence overall, by making sure people are living the healthy, stable and safe lives that, on an intuitive level, seem less likely to lead people to want to kill themselves or others.